February 7, 2019 / 4:45 PM / 7 months ago

New Brazil government backs former outlaw indigenous farmers

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil’s new right-wing government is backing an indigenous tribe that was fined under the previous administration for commercial farming practices banned on tribal land, saying they are an example to be followed as it pushes to open reservations to agriculture.

Indigenous person of the Nambikwara tribe blocks the BR-364 highway near Campo Novo do Parecis, Brazil, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The Parecis in western Mato Grosso state had partnered with local farmers to produce soy and were using genetically modified crops (GMO), both practices that are banned on reservation land. Environmental authority Ibama slapped the Parecis and the farmers with an unprecedented fine of 129 million reais ($34.72 million) last year.

But since far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro took office on Jan. 1, government officials have come out overwhelmingly in favor of the Parecis and allowing mechanized agriculture on indigenous land.

Nabhan Garcia, vice minister of land affairs at the Agriculture Ministry, praised the Parecis and said he would participate in the ceremony marking the beginning of their harvest next week.

“We’re in favor of the Indian learning to farm,” Garcia told Reuters in an interview.

“If he wants to lease the land, partner or plant it himself, it’s his right. What’s the problem? Quite the opposite, the day that the Indian starts to farm and to have his own income, it will be much better.”

Pareci tribe member Arnaldo Zunizakae, who helps manage the crop plantations on their reservation, said he was pleased to hear the government was sending representatives.

“That’s great that they are coming. With these authorities getting a first-hand look at our reality, things will improve,” Zunizakae said.

“The area we farm is 18,000 hectares (44,478 acres), but we only planted 12,000 hectares this season. But if we want to we can plant much more. The land is ours.”

Garcia said there are efforts underway in Congress to pass a law allowing partnerships and renting of land, which he believes has enough support to pass. He did not address the issue of GMO use on native reservations.

Activists say that stripping away protections on indigenous land would lead to environmental destruction and deforestation of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest.

Brazil’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said last month that government agencies were overstepping their bounds in the case of the Parecis and likely elsewhere in the country.

Damares Alves - minister of women, family and human rights, which includes oversight of indigenous agency Funai - has also come out in favor of opening indigenous land to agriculture, as has Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina Dias.

($1 = 3.7155 reais)

Reporting by Jake Spring and Anthony Boadle; editing by Bill Berkrot

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